What Does Terrorism Look Like on a College Campus?

Different definitions, a wide variety of terrorist motivations and changing tactics make addressing terrorism a challenge.

Labeling individuals as terrorists or subjectively assessing behavior is looked upon with suspicion, incredulity or even disdain in the diverse, open academic environment of the university setting. In a community with a high degree of diversity where debate and political action are encouraged, there is far more tolerance of views that call into question U.S. policies or challenge American culture.

Two days after the attack on OSU, campus staff member Stephanie Clemons Thompson, the assistant director of residence life in OSU’s office of student life university housing, posted a statement of support for the perpetrator Abdul Razak Ali Artan on Facebook. She described Artan as a Buckeye, and asked for members of the OSU community to come together and remember him as a student first.

A victim of the OSU attack, Professor Emeritus William Clark expressed to the student newspaper, The Lantern, restraint in judging his attacker.

“Before I pass judgment … I’d like to see what exactly the circumstances are and exactly why he took the course of action he chose,” he said.

KUOW reports that Will McCants, a terrorism expert at the Brookings Institution, believes that we may need a new category.

Today’s violent jihadist threat is very different from those in the past. Followers appear more troubled and more confused about their intentions and motivations than their predecessors.

The reality is that college campuses are targets for attacks from a wide variety of terrorists with a wide variety of motives.

In his 2003 testimony before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI at that time, said that schools and universities were soft targets for multiple small-scale attacks. He went on to describe the threat as being from single individuals sympathetic or affiliated with terrorist organizations “acting without external support or surrounding conspiracies.”

Director Mueller could not have anticipated how accurate his analysis came to be with the November 2016 attac
k at OSU.

Terrorist Motivations Run the Gamut

The factors influencing an individual to act in deliberate and concerted ways are many and varied. The FBI divides threat motivations into five categories:

1. Political: These persons can be at either end of the ideological spectrum, right or left leaning. Their likely targets are government institutions, leaders or symbols.

2. Religious: These persons have a belief in a God-inspired mission and reward after death. Their targets may be other religious groups, public gatherings, etc.

3. Racial: These are more commonly identified as “hate groups.” Holding that a defined social order places one race over another, they act to oppress or eliminate others. Targets may be churches, individuals or organizations representing minority groups.

4. Environmental: Targeting business, technology or research, the goal of adherents is to slow down or stop what they believe to be harmful to the environment.

5. Special Interest: The catch-all category for groups that cannot be included in the other classifications. Examples of the issues would be animal rights or anti-abortion with targets being facilities, organizations or individuals that are counter to their cause.

What Sets Campus Terrorism Apart?

Based solely on the location, terrorism on campus is not any different than terrorism anywhere else. The venue, place or location of a terroristic act is not a defining factor.

Then what sets higher education institutions apart? There is no one answer, but many factors contribute:

  • Educational institutions are softer targets with a more open environment than other venues. They are easily accessible because they are, by design, open and inviting places.
  • Some attacks may be prompted by ideological opposition to what is being taught, who is teaching and/ or specific research that is being conducted at the institution.
  • It’s becoming harder for terrorists to attack other types of targets (government installations and buildings, hotels, shopping malls, etc.)

The large numbers of people who congregate on campus represent a higher possibility for mass casualties. Campus public safety officials should be especially aware of conditions and programs that are specific to many campuses:

  • The multi-national/multi-cultural environment
  • The conduct of certain research at the institution
  • The study-abroad programs at some institutions
  • Programs and courses that are being taught that are in direct conflict with principles of terrorist organizations
  • Professors and other teaching staff that take public positions contrary to the beliefs of terrorist groups

In Part 2 of this series we will look at what institutions can do to detect and respond to terrorists and the threat of terrorist acts before they occur.

Author’s Note: This is part one of a three-part series on campus terrorism. In this article, we will explore what terrorism looks like on a college campus, which may or may not be any different than terrorism at other locations. Part two will explore the campus threat assessment process and how that process may be modified to address terrorism threats. Part three will cover how to prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from suspected or actual terrorist events on campus.

Rick Amweg and Paul Denton are staff consultants with Security Risk Management Consultants, LLC (SRMC) in Columbus, Ohio. Amweg served as the director of public safety administration and assistant police chief with OSU’s department of public safety, the director of campus safety and security for the Ohio board of regents, and executive director for the State of Ohio center for P-20 safety and security. Denton served 28 years with the Columbus division of police and in 2006 was appointed chief of OSU’s police division.

From the Same Series: Why Do Terrorists Target Colleges and Universities?

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